Jul. 10—It wasn't so long ago that Robert Street in West St. Paul was littered with so many potholes that some ambulance drivers refused to use it. And empty storefronts began to pop up.
Now, the road is freshly paved with trees planted along the edges and banners added to street lights. And just beyond them are construction cranes.
"If you beautify (Robert Street) and make it safe, and really make it an attractive roadway, businesses will come," West St. Paul Mayor Dave Napier said. "And it worked."
There are now at least 13 construction projects progressing along or near the 2.5-mile stretch; they are valued at more than $200 million total. When complete, there will be new stores, restaurants, 800 new apartments and an expanded recreational trail and bike tunnel.
Once dubbed by the mayor as the "backbone of West St. Paul," all the construction along the once-ailing Robert Street suggests it has gotten the adjustment it needed.
Robert Street is key to the future of the Dakota County suburb of about 20,000 residents just south of St. Paul. The stretch comprises 85 percent of the commercial land in West St. Paul, and has generated millions in tax revenue for the city, according to Napier.
BEYOND COUNTRY ROAD
Sometime in the 1800s, Robert Street began as a country road. It connected travelers between downtown St. Paul and then rural Dakota County.
And like most other cities across the country, the suburban population exploded after World War II in the Twin Cities metro. And communities like West St. Paul benefited.
In the 1950s, the Signal Hills Mall was built off of Robert Street and soon other commercial development flourished.
Born in 1962 and raised in West St. Paul, Napier said Robert Street was the place to go for dining, retail and entertainment. Every birthday, Napier and his family would celebrate at a Farrell's ice cream parlor. There was a big slide that kids could go down in burlap sacks, a mini-golf course and the Corral Drive-In theater.
In the 1990s, Highway 52 was built, significantly reducing the traffic down Robert Street. It was around this time that suburban development had grown farther out from urban cores, to places like Woodbury and Apple Valley, which developed their own shopping hubs.
Over time, the housing in inner-ring suburbs like West St. Paul became older "and perhaps a little less desirable," said Ryan Allen, an associate professor in housing and community development at the University of Minnesota. If the business district struggles, often the residential neighborhoods that support it do, too.
In 2001, West St. Paul adopted the Robert Street Renaissance Plan, which served as a strategy to revitalize the street.
REINVENTING ROBERT STREET
The Renaissance Plan changed zoning ordinances, developed a formal site plan review process and created higher standards for siting, landscaping and signage. But there was one big obstacle — Robert Street itself.
Around 2009, the street was in such disrepair that ambulances wouldn't use it, according to Napier. At one point, five businesses left the street, leaving behind vacant buildings.
"Robert Street was falling apart," Napier said. "Why in West St. Paul? We have so much to offer."
There are a lot of reasons that may have factored in, from the economy to the infrastructure and aesthetics of the area to the quality of management and marketing, West St. Paul City Manager Nate Burkett said. Businesses need to see an opportunity for profit.
Starting in 2013, the city "took a gamble," Napier said, on a $42 million facelift for Robert Street. The road was rebuilt and a center median was added along with sidewalks, traffic signals and streetlights. A group of business owners didn't like the big price tag and how a median would limit access to their buildings.
Plaza TV & Appliance owner Dave Motz was there through it all. His business has been on Robert Street since the 1970s and he participated in many meetings regarding the changes. He was initially part of a group concerned the median would make businesses less accessible.
"Now that it's all said and done and customers are finally figuring out how to get to the businesses ... I think it worked out for the best," Motz said. Some businesses closed, he notes, but others opened.
At least 80 new businesses are now on Robert Street since the project's completion, the mayor said. And home values have risen.
FROM HARDWARE TO APARTMENTS
It was about 11 years ago that the Dakota County Community Development Agency gobbled up a string of properties along the northern stretches of Robert Street near Annapolis Street. One of those was Langula Hardware, which survived 96 years in that spot.
The shops and homes were leveled and the land stood vacant — for years.
Now a 54-unit apartment building to be known as Gateway Place is rising at the intersection, with a second building a possibility. A 32-unit Suite Living Senior Care center is going up across the street.
Large construction cranes loom a few blocks south where nearly 400 apartments are going up where a long-vacant Kmart once stood at the Signal Hills mall. And there are 10 more projects, large and small, nearby.
In all, more than $200 million is going into the projects, five of which are bringing more housing to West St. Paul. City leaders hope they will spur even more in the future.
The city updated its Renaissance Plan in 2017, taking into account changing demographics and honing down on what the city wants Robert Street to look like in the future. The main goals include:
— Create identifiable places.
— Balance of mixed retail and housing.
— New businesses, residents and visitors.
— Places for community gathering and entertainment.
— Safe and attractive to get around in all modes.
A community engagement report suggested residents would like the area to be easier to walk and bike. This has all helped in the city's vision to create a more pedestrian-friendly environment.
"We are trying to find a few targeted zoning changes that make sense and that will also support the overall goals of the plan while also being reasonable and actionable," said Melissa Sonnek, city planner. An example: require new buildings to be closer to sidewalks for easier pedestrian access and put parking in the rear.
Once exact parameters are created, the plan will be presented to the city council for approval.
'CHANGE CAN BE SCARY'
West St. Paul is on the right track, said Allen, the associate professor at the U. Updating the street, storefronts and city layout, making research-based decisions and attracting businesses are all important factors to saving the inner-ring suburbs.
"In general, the kinds of changes ... seen in their plan are the ones that land use urban planners are advocating for," Allen said.
Making the strip more pedestrian-friendly fits in with the big apartment projects, he notes. More residents along the strip means more pedestrians, and thus customers will be on the street.
One of the potential problems with improving inner-ring suburbs is gentrification. As the value of an area goes up, the property taxes for those living there on a fixed income goes up as well. Without affordable-housing options, long-time residents may be forced out.
Yet several of the projects are being built as affordable options, including workforce housing within the Dominium project.
"Change can be scary, and I think that's a common human reaction," Allen said. "But I think that these changes are anticipated, if they're done in a thoughtful way, they can lead to wins for the whole community."